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Microbes on a plane can survive a whole week

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Sick on a plane: You should be more afraid of microbes than snakes. Researchers have found that disease-causing bacteria can linger for several days within an aircraft cabin.

For us to catch bacteria from another traveler through things that we touch, the pathogens must survive environmental conditions in a plane. To help assess health risk, an Auburn University team led by Kiril Vaglenov set out to find the limits of survival and transmission of Escherichia coli O157:H7 and methicillin resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA).

They suspended E. coli and MRSA in a saline solution, simulated sweat, and simulated saliva. Then, to see where these pathogens thrived best, the team introduced suspensions of the two pathogens onto a 1 x 1 centimeter squared sample of commonly touched surfaces: rubber armrests, metal toilet handles, plastic tray tables, plastic window shades, leather seats, and seatback pocket cloth. (These material were supplied by a major airline carrier.) The swatches were then exposed to typical commercial airplane cabin conditions of 24 degrees Celsius and 20 percent humidity.

  • Germiest: MRSA survived the longest on seatback pocket cloth: 168 hours, or exactly a week.
  • MRSA lasted the shortest on the toilet handle, just 4 days.
  • E. coli survived the longest on armrest material: 96 hours, or 4 days.
  • E. coli lasted 72 hours on the plastic tray table and shade, and 48 hours on the toilet handle.

The team also used a pig skin contact model to determine the transfer rates of the two pathogens from "infected" surfaces to skin. Nonporous (metal or plastic) surfaces had significantly higher rates of transmission than the porous ones (like armrests and seat pockets) for both pathogens. That means that while bacteria lasted the shortest on the toilet handle, that same flush button was most likely to transmit the microbes to the next user.

"If the bacteria do not survive there is no transmission," Vaglenov explains. "And there is no infection if the bacteria are not transmitted in an viable state. We found they survive and they are viable." Future steps include exploring disinfecting procedures and testing surfaces and materials with antimicrobial properties.

The study was funded through the Federal Aviation Administration's Airliner Cabin Environmental Research Center. The team is currently investigating how pathogens for other diseases, like tuberculosis, survive on planes. "The point of this study is not to be alarmist, but to point out to the airlines the importance of providing a sanitary environment for travelers," Auburn's Jim Barbaree says in a news release. "We want to work with them to minimize the risks to human health."

The work [abstract Q-2283] was presented at the American Society for Microbiology meeting in Boston last week.

[Auburn via Time]

Image: Auburn

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— By on May 28, 2014, 5:15 AM PST

Janet Fang

Contributing Editor

Janet Fang has written for Nature, Discover and the Point Reyes Light. She is currently a lab technician at Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory. She holds degrees from the University of California, Berkeley and Columbia University. She is based in New York. Follow her on Twitter. Disclosure